Yearly Archives: 2018

Persistent Acts: Gun Violence, Climate, and the Status Quo

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Through Persistent Acts, I look at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? My Persistent Acts series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre. This month, I consider the similarities between movements on gun reform and climate justice.

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In recent 24-hour news cycles, gun violence in the United States has gotten a lot of airtime. Since the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February, I’ve been curious to unpack the intersection of gun politics and climate politics in the context of performance in the U.S. The rapid increase in mass shootings this year (and prior) has shocked me, and I am not alone. I found shared space at a recent Resistance Soup on the topic of gun violence organized in support of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Resistance Soup is an activist party and sporadic performance-based event around a particular justice issue, organized by Jake Beckhard and Serena Berman at New York space Chinatown Soup. I attended last year’s Resistance Soup on immigration reform, featuring music, conversations with Michael Velarde of the Immigrant Defense Project, and actions (like postcard-writing to our local representatives). I’ve written specifically about the intersection of immigration, climate, and performance here. This year’s Resistance Soup was an opportunity to piece together the phenomena of gun violence and climate chaos in a performance setting.

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From the recent Resistance Soup for Moms Demand at Chinatown Soup.

Helmed by MC Larry Owens, the performances at Resistance Soup kicked off with lots of laughs. Despite the grave topic of gun violence, there was plenty of humor to go around, including a sketch about a theatre company attempting to make a play about NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. This little bit of satire went a long way towards building a more familiar space amongst strangers and motivating people to participate. I see a similar effectiveness in performances about climate – laughter is a common entry point for challenging topics. In addition to the comedy, the performances at Resistance Soup, which included praise-worthy music by Daisy the Great and Larry Owens himself, had tremendous soul. The beauty and self-expressive quality was deeply felt by the audience. As Larry ushered us through the evening, there was an overarching reminder to take care of one’s needs in these challenging times. Through this communal experience, with laughter and music, the audience got more comfortable with one another. The reminders about beauty, self-expression, and care resonated with me and how I think about work on climate – it starts with deep self-awareness and actualization.

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Larry Owens and Diane Rinaldo at Resistance Soup.

It was interesting to hear from Moms Demand Action representative Diane Rinaldo about the organization’s use of language. Diane explained that Moms Demand uses the term “gun sense” as opposed to “gun control” or “gun reform.” Given polarized attitudes on the issue of guns, I appreciate this attempt to neutralize the language in order to reach a wider audience. In conversations with artists about climate, there are many buzzwords tossed around – Anthropocene, climate change, climate chaos, climate justice, and so on. Colleagues and I often make choices about titles or use of these terms depending on our audience. Most of the time, we’re past the point of trying to convince people that the climate is changing because of human activity; climate issues are so immense and urgent. I’m taking a page from the Moms Demand book with regards to the word “sense” as a strategy to lessen the politicization of issues where humans are on the line.

One other component of this year’s Resistance Soup was a voter guide table, where audiences could submit their addresses to glean information on the candidates in their districts. Given the elections coming up this year, it is important to make it as easy as possible for our peers to vote. This election cycle is a chance to shift the power balance on gun issues, and to elect candidates with a climate justice focus. For me, empowering voters with the information they need to make sensible choices is one of the first steps in electing candidates for justice, on all levels of government.

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The bulk of the energy going towards holding politicians accountable is coming from youth, as they speak out via the media and organize public demonstrations, including March for Our Lives and Youth Over Guns. The number of people that turn up in support of gun sense and youth leadership is inspiring. The Youth Over Guns rally crystalized the intricacies of gun violence, as young people of color took the stage to denounce governmental silence on gun crimes. These young people called for a power shift, highlighting issues of safety and protection – who is in charge of defining “safety,” and for whom? And what is being protected? As a symbol of the immediacy of gun violence issues, there was a white coffin at the foot of the rally stage. This emblem of death and grief stirred up questions about how we got to this point, via our current political and economic systems. What is and can be sustained by systems? What do the systems uphold? To me, the answer to both questions lies in a status quo of oppression and divisiveness.

I most certainly don’t have the silver-bullet solutions to gun and climate issues. But bringing these movements in conversation with one another has helped me highlight what’s working – the strength of youth leadership, the space for grief, and the necessity of tangible action steps. The status quo subsists by perpetuating apathy, detaching individuals from their collective agency. The power of the people, however, is persisting to magnify voices from the margins, towards a safer, more positive reality for all.

Next Steps
Learn more and take action with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Follow Everytown for Gun Safety
Check your voter registration and upcoming election dates

(Top Image: Youth Over Guns in NYC. Photo: CNN.)

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

 


 

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

#art4wetlands

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Welcome to a new series of posts here and on Twitter @ecoartscotlandfocused on art, artists and wetlands using the hashtag #art4wetlands. Feel free to join in by posting using this hashtag or contacting us with suggestions for blogs. We’ll be publishing weekly between now and the Ramsar Convention Conference of the Parties #RamsarCOP13 which takes place in October 2018 in Dubai, UAE.

Wetlands are amongst the most widely threatened habitats world-wide. Threats include unsustainable urban development e.g. being drained for housing development; pollution from urban settlements, industry and agriculture; invasive species, as well as overharvesting. According to analyses by Ramsar,

The global extent of wetlands is now estimated to have declined between 64-71% in the 20th century, and wetland losses and degradation continue worldwide.

But the biggest threat is a perception that to quote the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, wetlands are,

…misunderstood and undervalued by people, leading to a desire to replace them with more ‘useful’ and ‘productive’ options such as housing developments and agricultural land.

Wetlands are a fundamental part of the water cycle, with a key role in cleaning water as it moves from smaller bodies into larger ones (rivers, seas, oceans). Wetlands are critical to many migratory animals and hence their careful management is an internationally shared responsibility. Wetlands are also home to a multitude of amphibious species. Wetlands such as saltmarshes and mangroves stabilise littoral zones, reducing coastal erosion and storm damage to properties.

Artists have represented waterbirds since neolithic times, and the Ramsar Convention published Ramsar Cultural Heritage Information Pack 10 Wetlands – an inspiration in art, literature, music and folklore

Betsy Damon, The Living Water Garden, Chengdu, 1998

More recently Peter Howard’s piece Wetland Landscapes in English Arthighlighted how during the 18th and 19th Centuries artists in this country’s tradition marked changes in perceptions of wetlands. Pieces by contemporary artists Simon Read (Communities and Coastal Change) and Betsy Damon (The Sounds of Water) open up contemporary activist practices where artists are not just representing wetlands but also getting directly involved in conservation and wise use.

Limmo Ecology Park visited during the HydroCitizenship Research, Photo: Simon Read

We have assembled a programme highlighting artists working in different ways on issues such as habitat restoration, pollution and biodiversity loss. We have examples from all six of the Ramsar Convention’s regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America, and Oceania).

The Ramsar Convention’s Culture Network underpins this initiative which draws on the expertise of members of the Network’s Art Focus Group. The Ramsar Convention has a longstanding commitment to culture and the arts from its adoption in 1971 through a series of Resolutions to its partnership with the MAVA Foundation and others in the Ramsar Culture Network (2011-18). As part of World Wetlands Day every year the Ramsar Convention holds the Global Wetlands Youth Photo Competition.

Please share examples of artists (whether now or in the ancient past) contributing to wetlands conservation and wise use with the hashtag #art4wetlands. We are particularly interested in art that makes a difference and we look forward to learning about new examples over the next four months.


 

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.</ br></ br>

Go to EcoArtScotland

Velocommunities 1000th Climate Challenge Fund project

This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland

As part of #CleanAirDay this Thursday, we’re excited to announce the details of a new collaboration between Creative Carbon Scotland, Glasgow charity Bike for Good and theatre-maker, Lewis Hetherington, as part of the Velocommunities project funded by the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund.

Velocommunities will run between Spring 2018 and March 2020, supporting communities in Glasgow’s Southside and West End to cycle in their local area and tackle climate change by reducing travel-related carbon emissions. The project was announced as the 1000thproject to be funded by the Climate Challenge Fund earlier this year.

City data shows that car driving is the ‘go-to’ transport mode in Glasgow, contributing to climate change, air pollution and poor health through inactivity. There are already significant infrastructure changes underway in the city to enable more active travel choices including the South City Way. Alongside these developments, programmes such as Velocommunities support individuals and communities to overcome barriers and widen access to cycling, whilst increasing environmental awareness and carbon literacy.

Creative Carbon Scotland and Lewis Hetherington’s role in Velocommunities will be to use theatre and video to document and explore Glasgow’s transition to a more sustainable city. We’ll work with young people taking part in the project, who will be inheriting and shaping the city, to explore their visions of a Glasgow in which more sustainable modes of travel such as cycling are the mainstream.

This ability of the arts to imagine different potential futures and explore them through ‘thought experiments’ with audiences and communities is one of the roles of the arts and cultural practices which we’re interested in promoting and exploring through Creative Carbon Scotland’s culture/SHIFT programme.

Over the course of the project Lewis will embed himself in activities being run by Bike for Good’s Southside Community Hub and produce a film which captures the stories of individuals and groups engaging with the Hub, working with film-maker Geraldine Heaney. The works produced will be shared at a range of events and we’ll be posting updates on the project on our news page and social media channels, so keep your eyes peeled!

If you’re interested in finding out more about the project or Creative Carbon Scotland’s culture/SHIFT work then please get in touch at gemma.lawrence@creativecarbonscotland.com.

 


The post New project announcement: Velocommunities 1000th Climate Challenge Fund project appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.


 

Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

(Im)possibility of Plants in Exhibitions

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

I get a phone call asking if I’m interested in purchasing some greenery for “a very good price.” A contemporary art space is selling legions of tropical plants that were part of an exhibition attempting to re-create an Amazonian rainforest – an endeavor where the moist, damp, sticky and deafening wilderness of the Amazon is supposed to take our breath away in the middle of the European winter. My curiosity is triggered because it sounds rather presumptuous. The description of the exhibition includes: “Once you’re inside, there is no escape. The pressure of the environment is so powerful and hypnotic that it propels people into a dreamstate.”

It sounds very enticing and dreamlike but when I enter the space a few months later, it is more akin to a nightmare: the local Amazonian rainforest is a battlefield of dead plants. I wonder how it was ever a good idea to put plants with different temperature and humidity needs next to each other, let alone import tropical plants to a gallery space in February. I am told that when the plants arrived it was minus five degrees Celsius outside and the plants’ soil was frozen – a problem that was solved by pumping up the heat (and carbon emissions). These tantalizing forces of the jungle were clearly dreamed up with little understanding of the plants’ needs, presenting us a with a naive and romanticized notion of nature. Do we really want to raise awareness of the Brazilian rainforest’s declining ecosystems by creating a slowly dying ecosystem in a gallery space? It would be ironic if it weren’t so sad.

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I am excited about this new desire from artists and art spaces to address environmental challenges, but using plants in cultural spaces often proves problematic. We’re all familiar with the iconic image of the half-dead palm tree in a corner of the theatre, there to fill and freshen up the stage during the Q&A. Cultural spaces are designed to make the art and artists look good, and air-conditioning and lights are always going to favor the art over the plants.

In search of better practices, I consulted artist Ju Hyun Lee working with Ludovic Burel as the duo KVM. Though their practice is very much rooted in (art)theory – Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosopy and Ecology after the End of the World being a central reference – their most recent work currently exhibited in Tubology – Our Lives in Tubes in Dunkirk, France, includes edible plants. They have grown 75 varieties of hot peppers and 21 varieties of edible tubers, marrying them with the art and design collection as well as the architecture of the FRAC Grand Large. The duration of the show (April-December) reflects the bio-rhythm of the plants. Just like farmers, the artists started early in the season, meeting and engaging with local gardeners, using the heated surfaces in their greenhouses to germinate chili peppers. Growing chili pepper in early spring in the north of France proved a challenge. The artists brought in many experts including Bernard Dupont, who succeeds in growing hundreds of varieties of peppers near Besançon, and ethnobotanist Jean-Claude Bruneel, who is studying wild plants in the era of climate change.

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Ju Hyun Lee and Jean-Claude, a specialist on wild edible plants.

Even with all this gardening expertise at hand, there were more barriers to overcome. The exhibition space, like most exhibition spaces, is designed for “non-living artwork,” meaning there are plenty of protocols about temperature and humidity levels. This created a conflict of interest between the living and non-living artworks. The protocols were designed to conserve the art collection, not to maximize the plants’ wellbeing. What conditions were needed to have both living and non-living artworks successfully co-habit?

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Living and non-living artworks temporarily covered for treatment in the exhibition space at FRAC.

Art institutions are not prepared to deal with art that is alive and needs permanent care. While the bulk of the work usually takes place before the opening, living artworks require ongoing care. Plants need to be watered, aired, and given proper treatment. The first week of the Tubology show, midges appeared because the enriched organic soil had not fully decomposed. The second week, the chillies suffered from an attack of aphids due to accidental overwatering. The show had to close in order to clean and treat the hot pepper plants, but the artists were adamant about re-opening again. After covering the chillies with protective sheets, they engaged the local community – including chefs, gardeners, and botanists – and the staff to help solve this problem. Ju Hyun states: “Animals, including snails and insects, are a common problem familiar to gardeners. In the industrial agriculture world, these vegetable-eating creatures are considered the enemy, fought with chemical weapons. But there is no need to panic; there is a wide range of natural remedies out there, including black soap and nettle manure.

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The gallery staff had to step out of their comfort zone and the process of looking after the plants became a binding force between different parties. Ju Hyun adds: “We will certainly have more issues to face together. Growing plants indoor is not ideal. The attention and care they require is the most important part of our work. Artists and art institutions have to invent a successful model for the ecological transition of the art world. We believe living artworks can help. Our society largely relies on division of labor and delegating, but today’s ecological urgency asks us to take responsibility towards living things – humans, plants, animals and the planet.”

It is interesting to bring the notion of collective care and responsibility into the exhibition space. We need to recognize the layered complexity of the discourse around ‘Nature’. With ecosystem collapse, species extinction, climate change and other environmental issues becoming more pressing, artists all over the world are responding and creating exhibitions that include plants and other living things. However, good intentions or spectacle do not contribute to this discourse nor make interesting exhibitions. We have to remain aware of the complexity of ecosystems as well as the associated dialogues, realizing that if the artwork is alive, it can also die.

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Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.


 

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Guest Blog: Theatre and Ecology – A Different View

This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland

Carl Lavery, Professor of Theatre Studies at Glasgow University, uses the example of Samuel Beckett to talk through a different view of the connection between theatre and ecology.

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To think of theatre and ecology, or even theatre and environment, is generally to think of three forms of representation, all of which would seek to represent ecological issues (climate change, species extinction, energy usage, etc.) in a direct or conventional way:

  • Activist or committed performance that intends to tackle recognisable problems by representing them in ways that we immediately grasp;
  • Site-specific interventions that, in some way or another, aim to place the work within the environment as opposed to merely depicting it. These include performances in cities, fields, rivers, mountains, seas, etc.;
  • Work that refuses the large energy expenditure of the theatre and instead aims to generate green power by obtaining its energy from the sun or by pedal power.

But what if none of these performance modes actually worked? Not simply because the issues they purport to deal with are already well understood by the majority of the audience who generally go to see them – a case of preaching to the converted, so to speak – but also because they tend to assume that they can represent such abstract, massive things as climate change or, alternatively, bring to light the often invisible ravages and inequalities caused by petroleum extraction. Bertolt Brecht, for instance, once said that the social, monetary and environmental consequences of oil frustrate the five-act play!

Theatre’s ecological role?

If these limitations are accepted, what then should theatre’s ecological role be? And how, as critics and spectators, are we meant to engage with it? One possible way forward might be to rethink the significance of plays and performances that, on the surface at least, appear to have nothing to do with environmental catastrophe in any obvious sense. These are works that offer no message or solution to the problems that face us. Rather, they simply present the mess, and leave it up to us to draw our own conclusions, to find ways of making sense of them.

One thinks, here, for instance, of the work of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), a playwright who, for too long, has been associated with a bleak, absurdist outlook on life, dealing with personal forms of existential crisis. However, the closer one looks at Beckett’s plays, the more it becomes obvious that they are infused with an acutely sensitive ecological consciousness. Waiting for Godot (1953), for instance, shows us a world in which only one tree remains; Endgame (1957) is located within an anonymous, post-apocalyptic landscape where food is running out and nature has ended; and Happy Days (1961) presents us with a startling image of a middle-aged woman, Winnie, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth and suffering the consequences of extreme heat.  At one point, her parasol spontaneously combust and, at one another, she complains about the loss of the ozone layer. Happy Days, like so much of Beckett’s early work, is haunted by the future ghost of global warming, as the most recent production of the play with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (2018) makes so abundantly  clear, with its plastic ridden set and blazing light bulbs – what Beckett referred to ‘as hellish half light’.

It has been de rigeur amongst theatre specialists to see Beckett’s dead and depopulated landscapes as making visible the anxieties of a nuclear generation. But it should not be forgotten that Beckett’s plays were also contemporaneous with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the ‘great acceleration’ in fossil fuel consumption after 1945, and the coming into being of an age of oil spills, acid rain, plastics, industrial farming and ocean acidification. Beckett, of course, was not immune from his time, and it is worthy of note that he conceived of the character of Winnie as a bird with oil on its feather, tragically stranded, defeated by pollution.

Feel the madness of our society

As opposed to the more explicit modes of representation mentioned above, Beckett’s plays retain their ecological shock value, their capacity to make us think, precisely because they refuse to tell us what they are about. By leaving his spectators in kind of no-man’s land, Becket manages not only to explain the sadness and dereliction in which we live today. More crucially, I would suggest, he allows us to feel the madness of our society, to experience in our bodies the disorientation and disbelief we experience as we witness a social and economic order that is, quite literally, unable to stop consuming itself.

Beckett’s indirect or oblique approach to ecology, to what we might call living in the Anthropocene, is not only efficacious because it confronts us with what we normally repress, but also because it offers a kind of answer, albeit silently and implictly. To watch a Beckett play is to renounce our habitual ways of responding to the world. Instead of continually striving to act, Beckett invites us to slow down a little, to show some patience and to acknowledge the presence of something – an artwork – that we can neither dominate nor exploit. Beckett’s work exists as a living thing. In the same way that we don’t ask for explanation for why a tree should exist, so Beckett’s work refuses to explain itself. It is simply there for us to make sense of as we can, as we will, but always in the knowledge that our understanding is partial. The work retains its mystery and strangeness, even as it gestures towards a devastated world, an earth in ruins.

Radical strangeness and unfamiliarity

Perhaps, it is this, the radical strangeness and unfamiliarity of such works that we need to pay more attention to as ecocritics and activists. Instead then of thinking about theatre and art that deals with ecological crisis in expected ways by, more often that not, telling us what we already know, Beckett shocks us out of our complacency and taps the unconscious fears and anxieties that prevent us from living differently. By inviting us to confront our fears, Beckett, I suggest, holds out the possibility of experimenting alternative modes of existence.

Along with a whole host of ecological thinkers from Arne Naess to Donna Haraway, I do not believe that creating greener energy supplies or producing more sustainable economies is enough to prevent the ecological nightmare to come. If we are to live on a better planet, it is not nature that needs to be saved, it is, rather, that bizarre, irrational animal called the human. One way of doing this might be to pay greater attention to the ecological potential of artworks that show human subjects lost in a world that they have destroyed without knowing why they have done so. To resurrect a complex word that has been almost forgotten today, Beckett’s plays work dialectically. It is through the negative that the positive might be best attained. As such, our task is to become attuned to that negative, responding to the ‘undoing’ that Beckett discloses in a manner that is generative of a new people to come.

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For more on these issues connect with the Performance, Ecology and Heritage Hub at the University of Glasgow or contact Carl Lavery directly.

 


The post Guest Blog: Theatre and Ecology – A Different View appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.


 

Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

Imagining Water, #10: Walking the Howsatunnuck River with Uncí Carole

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

The tenth in a year-long series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Although Uncí (Grandmother) Carole Bubar-Blodgett is not trained nor does she self-identify as an artist, her Water is Life Walk, now in its 8th iteration, has all the characteristics of a site-specific, interactive public art project paying homage to the water that sustains us all. From May 15 through June 13, 2018, Uncí Carole walked 220 miles, the full length of the Howsatunnuck (Housatonic) River beginning at its source in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and ending where it spills into Long Island Sound in Milford, Connecticut. Each day as she walked, Uncí Carole conducted indigenous ceremonies, leaving colorful sacred bundles that offered respect, gratitude and healing to the threatened waterway and invited the public to participate with her. On June 3, I did just that.

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Uncí Carole with a vessel carrying the Sacred Water from the five major headwaters of the Housatonic River.

I met Uncí Carole beside the allotted trail for the day in Kent, Connecticut. She had just completed a sacred ceremony at one of the five confluences of the Housatonic River. There were six of us walking with her that stunningly beautiful day: Pam – a resident of Kent – and her 8-year-old daughter Lena; my friend, Felicity who had joined me; Uncí’s granddaughter Gwen; Gwen’s other grandmother, Lou-Ann; and me.

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The river walkers (from left to right): Pam, Lena, Lou-Ann, Uncí Carole (carrying the water vessel), Gwen (holding a Macaw feather acknowledging the Eagle and Condor prophecy) and Felicity.

UncÍ Carole told me the outlines of her life during the course of the morning: Uncí (then simply Carole) had been raised without the knowledge that her mother’s family were members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. At 35, when she discovered this information by accident, she began a personal quest to “decolonize her ways of thinking and being” and learn as much as she could about her Native heritage. Carole studied with many teachers and danced the Sun Dance at Chief Leonard Crow Dog’s Paradise Grounds on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In 2011, the spirit guided her to Walk the Sacred Water in order to “heal what had been contaminated” and to rebuild a vital connection that has been lost between human beings and the water that nourishes them. Uncí Carole is now a traditional Pipe Carrier and Bundle Keeper. As such, she feels a grave responsibility to The Seven Generations who will come after her. According to the philosophy of many Native American nations, tribes and other indigenous people around the world “in every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Protecting and healing the water that they need to survive is part of that sacred duty. As Uncí spoke about her Seven Generations responsibility, I thought sadly about how different our global environment would be today if we all practiced that gracious philosophy.

The Howsatunnuck (Housatonic) River

To the naked eye, the Housatonic River flowing through Kent seems idyllic. Waiting for Uncí, Felicity and I sat on a stone outcrop overlooking a lovely waterfall that spilled rushing water over a series of granite rocks. Behind us, to complete the picturesque scene, the river flowed under Bull’s Bridge, one of the last surviving covered wooden bridges in New England.

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The Howsatunnuck (Housatonic) River flowing under Bull’s Bridge in Kent, Connecticut.

The Walk

Before we began the day’s walk, Uncí Carole and her granddaughter, Gwen, conducted a smudge ceremony. Using dried sage and sweet grass, which was set on fire in an abalone shell and which represented earth, air, water and fire, Gwen “bathed” each of the walkers with the smoke in order to turn any negative energy that we carried in our bodies into the positive energy we required for our journey. Our tasks ahead included “Feeding the Water,” and placing bundles in specific locations along the river: in areas that were known to be polluted; above and below obstacles that impeded the natural flow of the river (like dams and buildings); at graveyards; at sacred spaces where confluences occurred; and on bridges, which afforded the best access to the water. All along the way, Uncí Carole carried the Sacred Water in a vessel, which she had collected from the river’s source, and which she would add to with water from the confluences where it entered the Housatonic.

Uncí’s explanation for “Feeding the Water” was as follows: We feed the water with rice, berries, dried meat and corn because it feeds us every day. We use wild rice because it symbolizes the medicines and foods that grow in the wetlands. When we use wild cranberries, we are remembering the tart foods, without which, we would not understand the meaning of sweetness just as we would not understand the sweetness of life without its hardships. When we use dried meat, we are acknowledging the four-legged, winged and finned ones that give their lives to sustain ours. And when we use the corn, we are remembering the three sisters (corn, beans and squash) that are traditionally planted together and like a community, lean on each other in order to grow.

Each of us was handed one of the foods to toss into the river at one of the bridges crossing the Housatonic in homage to the sacredness of the water. At this same bridge, we also hung a healing bundle that consisted of seven bunches of tobacco knotted by seven individual colored cotton ribbons. The bundle was tied loosely to the structure of the bridge so that it would eventually fall into the river where its healing blessing would enter the river’s flow and then biodegrade.

Takeaways

Uncí’s project was a moving experience that left me with a number of powerful feelings and observations. The slow, intentional pace of the walk created a sense of slow-motion – just as Uncí Carole was hyper-focused on the significance of each of her actions, I too was pulled to pay closer attention to the individual features of the natural world as I passed through them. I was also reminded of how little attention I normally pay to procuring water (and appreciating it) when it flows easily from a faucet and I am not required to fetch and carry it for my daily use (as Uncí was doing over 220 miles). And I was newly conscious of how hard it was to actually access the river when the built environment prevented us from walking close to its shore in many areas along the way. Although Uncí Carole may not have known this, her clear intention to create an interactive experience at a specific site for participants that (1) reconnected them with the Earth using colorful and meaningful artifacts that served as an ephemeral installation; (2) called attention to the pollution that was destroying our sacred water sources; and (3) built a sense of community among those that came to the Water Walk, are all characteristics of a interactive public art project that is highly effective.

(Top image: The Water is Life Walk ended on June 13 when Harbormaster Ross Hatfield took Uncí Carole Bubar-Blodgett out on a boat so that she could mingle clean source water from the headwaters of the Howsatunnnuck into the salt water of Long Island Sound. Photo courtesy of Water is Life Walks.)

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and


 

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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